Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Keep the Wild in Your Heart, Not in Your Home

I recently watched a a fine documentary miniseries on the Animal Planet channel entitled "Fatal Attractions" which profiles individuals that keep animals such as big wild cats, chimpanzees, and reptiles as pets. In this series, interviews with current and former pet owners, those who knew deceased pet owners killed by their animals, and experts on wildlife issues are interspersed with personal footage of owners with their wild pets and footage of the animal species in the wild. The show is fascinating in partially the same way a program like "Hoarders" or "Intervention" is fascinating. It provides a window into the psychological makeup of the individuals who make these risky choices and allows the viewer to evaluate his or her motives and behavior.

However, I feel like what really sets this documentary miniseries apart is its willingness to shed light on a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly normalized in the United States and perhaps elsewhere: the keeping of non-domesticated animals in one's home, often with tragic consequences for the human beings involved, almost always with very unfortunate consequences for the animals involved.

Being a miniseries comprised of three one-hour documentaries, "Fatal Attractions" steers towards the sensationalistic in its coverage of animal attacks: the man whose giant lizards ate off his face and ended his life, the woman whose chimpanzee attacked and nearly killed her friend, the woman whose tiger ate her. However, the experts interviewed on the program usually also take care to point out that a human home is not the proper environment for the optimum thriving of the wild animals themselves.

In "Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction," David DeGrazia, a university professor and ethicist that has written extensively on animal rights issues, writes that it is ethically unsound to keep any animal other than a cat or a dog as a pet in one's home as the animal's species typical functioning will be impeded. (Domesticated cats and dogs are an exception because they co-evolved with human beings as domesticated species.) Because rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish did not co-evolve with human beings as domestic animals and because the conditions they are kept in almost always severely restrict their freedom of movement, there is no reason someone should keep such an animal in his or her home for purely recreational purposes.

Moreover, any non-domesticated animal (and even domesticated animals under stress) can prove dangerous to humans. I have had my finger turn nearly black from a pet store bite from a hamster around the time I was in ninth grade. Obviously such a creature was not comfortable in its environment and unhappy with the attentions of humans so perhaps it should not have been sold as a pet.

Additionally, the folly of keeping snakes in one's home has led to something of an ecological mini-crisis in the Florida Everglades, where large constrictors have replaced many natural predators at the top of the food chain. These snakes, whose owners often decide for whatever reason that they can no longer handle them as pets, are released into the wild to the detriment of society. The saddest part of this cycle is that the snake never should have been kept as a domestic pet to begin with. (As someone particularly fond of snakes since childhood but who has never acquired one for reasons of ethics and safety, I can understand why someone would want to keep such a beautiful animal in their home. However, I think that a mature adult should be able to understand the ultimate folly of such a course of action and put the welfare of both humans and animals ahead of the temporary joy of owning such a creature.)

One point that "Fatal Attractions" does a good job of underscoring is the principally selfish nature of those who would keep animals other than dogs and cats in their home. (I would add to this that even domesticated farm animals such as horses, ponies, pigs, cows, bulls, sheep, chickens, alpacas, donkeys, goats, etc. are also a selfish acquisition if one does not have ample space to keep them on and/or forces the animal into an inappropriate role as a house pet.) Because in-breeding is all too common and these animals are almost never released into their natural habitat, the goal of conservation is almost never achieved in these situations. Furthermore, the goal of education is defeated when these animal owners send the impression that keeping a wild animal in one's home is anything but detrimental to both animals and humans.

The Captive Wild Animal Protection Campaign provides several fine educational resources to underscore to the public the unwisdom of keeping wild animals in one's home. Their website (http://www.cwapc.org/index.html) is a valuable resource anyone thinking about acquiring such an animal owes it to themselves to check out first. An expert on such matters exhorted the audience of "Fatal Attractions" to "Keep the wild in your heart, not in your home." This is an exhortation we would all do well to heed.